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Fake news about Kremlin critic Navalny aims to discredit him after his death

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Since news broke on February 16, 2024 that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had died while incarcerated in the Russian Arctic, there has been a resurgence of doctored images and fake news aiming to discredit Navalny and his family. We took a look at three of the most widely spread fake news items about Navalny. None of them are true.

If you only have a minute… 

  • A photo claiming to show Alexei Navalny doing a Nazi salute has been widely circulated on social media in the days since his death. But this image has been photoshopped. Moreover, it’s been circulating online for more than 10 years. 
  • A photo of Navalny’s wife posing on the beach with a man, said to be her lover, has been widely circulated online in recent days. But the man featured in the photo posted it online to show his support for the couple. And this photo, too, is a few years old. 
  • A video that has gone viral allegedly shows Navalny trying to get the money to carry out a coup d’état from an agent with the M16, the British secret service. The man in the video, however, is not Navalny. 

The factcheck, in detail 

A photoshopped image of Navalny doing a Nazi salute 

When news of Navalny’s death broke, several dozen accounts, like this one, shared this image of what seems to be a shirtless Navalny doing a Nazi salute, a tattoo of Adolf Hitler on his bare chest. Social media users who shared this photo claim that he is a neo-Nazi who doesn’t deserve praise. 

“Perhaps you’d like this photo of Navalny to be projected on the facade of the French embassy,” one X caption reads. 

This is a screengrab of a post on X from February 18, 2024 featuring a photoshopped image that makes it look like Navalny did a Nazi salute.
This is a screengrab of a post on X from February 18, 2024 featuring a photoshopped image that makes it look like Navalny did a Nazi salute. © X / @kamouniac

If you carry out a reverse image search on this image (here’s a link to our guide), then you’ll see that it has already been circulated online. The oldest instance of this photo that we found was from a 2012 post on a Russian forum.

This is a screengrab of a post on the Russian forum pk25 from April 18, 2012, featuring the photoshopped image of Navalny doing a Nazi salute.
This is a screengrab of a post on the Russian forum pk25 from April 18, 2012, featuring the photoshopped image of Navalny doing a Nazi salute. © X / The Observers

It’s also possible to find another version of this photo from back in November 2011. In that version of the photo, the person doing the salute isn’t Navalny. Our fact-checking colleagues at AFP Factuel discovered this pre-photoshop version of the photo on this blog. On another blog, a social media user who goes by the handle “artem68” says that he took the original picture. He says that his full name is Artem Jitenev and that he was working as a photographer for the Russian press agency Ria Novosti. His post is called “protest russia – 2011”.

This is a screengrab from a Russian forum where a man says that he took this photo back in November 2011.
This is a screengrab from a Russian forum where a man says that he took this photo back in November 2011. © The Observers

The photo shared on X has been photoshopped – Navalny’s head has been pasted on the body of someone else doing a Nazi salute.

No, Navalny’s wife Yulia did not run off to a beach with a lover 

Another photo also went viral on both X and Facebook after news broke of Navalny’s death. This photo shows Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, posing with a man on a beach. 

The accounts that shared this image claimed the man was her lover. 

“Meanwhile, when he was stuck in a Siberian jail, she had already dumped him for a toy boy lover…”, reads the author of this post on X.

This is a screengrab of a post shared on X on February 18, 2024 that falsely claims that this is an image of Navalny’s wife and her lover.
This is a screengrab of a post shared on X on February 18, 2024 that falsely claims that this is an image of Navalny’s wife and her lover. © X / @JohnLeFevre

When we ran this image through a reverse image search, we realised that this rumour has been circulating since at least 2021. We discovered a post from August 18, 2021 on the Russian social network Vkontakte claiming that Navalnaya was in a relationship with Evgeny Chichvarkin, a Russian billionaire living in exile in France.

This is a screengrab of a photo of Navalnaya and Chichvarkin on a beach, published on August 18, 2021 on Vkontakte.
This is a screengrab of a photo of Navalnaya and Chichvarkin on a beach, published on August 18, 2021 on Vkontakte. © The Observers

We took a look at Chichvarkin’s social media and found that he had posted that photo of himself and Navalnaya on his Instagram account on August 17, 2021. His caption reads, in Russian, “With the First Lady of the Beautiful Russia of the Future”. Below his caption, he added the hashtag “myfightingfriend”, the word “freedom” and tagged Navalny’s Instagram account.

This is a screengrab of Chichvarkin’s Instagram post. In it, he shows his support for Navalny and his wife. The post is from August 17, 2021.
This is a screengrab of Chichvarkin’s Instagram post. In it, he shows his support for Navalny and his wife. The post is from August 17, 2021. © Instagram / @tot_samy_chichvarkin

Three days later, on August 20, 2021, Chichvarkin shared a photo of Navalny himself and told his followers to check out Navalny’s most recent text. 

Chichvarkin was a friend of the couple and a supporter. This photo, which he posted himself, in no way proves that he was Navalnaya’s lover. 

Since the death of her husband, a large number of fake news items and doctored photos have targeted Navalnaya, who, in a video posted on February 20, said that she planned to “continue Alexei Navalny’s work”. 

And, finally, no, that’s not Navalny trying to raise money for a coup from a British spy 

A number of people have also shared a black and white video showing two men speaking in English in a café. Many of these people have claimed, wrongly, that the footage shows Navalny trying to raise money from an agent with the M16 to carry out a coup. 

“Navalny Asks for $10-20 Million a Year to Start a Color Revolution in Russia,” reads the caption on this TikTok account. 

This video was picked up by a Facebook account that added an additional claim – that Navalny was negotiating with a British agent from M16, James William Thomas Ford. 

This is a screengrab of a TikTok post published on February 17, 2024 that falsely claims that Navalny is trying to raise funds to carry out a coup in Russia.
This is a screengrab of a TikTok post published on February 17, 2024 that falsely claims that Navalny is trying to raise funds to carry out a coup in Russia. © TikTok / @todayisamerica

In the video, you can hear two men speaking. 

“If we had more money, we would expand our opportunities, of course,” one says. “If someone would spend, I don’t know, 10, 20 million a year on supporting this, we could see quite a different picture. And this is not a big amount of money for people who have billions at stake.” 

However, when we carried out a reverse image search on the footage, we discovered that the video was first broadcast on February 1, 2021 by the Russian TV channel RT. RT has had its broadcasts suspended in the European Union because it is believed to be a tool of disinformation used by the Kremlin. The news reported by RT was then picked up in this article by Russian press agency Ria Novosti. 

Neither of these two Russian media outlets reported that Navalny was in this video. They claimed that it showed a discussion between Vladimir Ashurkov, Navalny’s colleague, and a man named James William Thomas Ford, who they say is a British employee of the British embassy in Moscow and an M16 agent.

The Italian media outlet Open.online, which is a member of the IFCN (International Fact-Checking Network) confirmed that Ashurkov is indeed the person seated on the left in the video. Ashurkov does work with Navalny, according to his page on LinkedIn

However, the claims by these two Russian media outlets that the other person is a British employee of the British embassy in Moscow or an agent with M16 have not been confirmed by any other source. 

As for the topic discussed by the two men, Open.online also reported that “all the references” in the discussion “were about FBK”, the anti-corruption NGO founded by Navalny. There is no proof that the conversation included discussion about organising a coup. 

Read moreEU vows to hold Putin accountable at Navalny widow meeting

Navalny had most recently been held in a prison in the Arctic since he was arrested following his return to Russia in 2021. He had initially left Russia after he was poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok and hospitalised in Germany. 

Since the announcement of his death, a number of Western leaders have accused the Russian government of being responsible.

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